An Interview with Gene Sharp

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Nonviolence & Civilian-based Defense
By James L. VanHise

James VanHise: When you first began looking at historical examples of nonviolence, were you surprised how widespread it was?

Gene Sharp: Yes. Because the first book I read on this of any size, that I remember, was Richard Gregg’s old book, The Power of Nonviolence, which I think he had eight or nine examples in his first chapter and I thought, wow! Eight or nine examples! Isn’t that wonderful? And then I was led to reading some other things—Bart de Ligt’s book, Conquest of Violence for example, in which he mentions nonviolent resistance—Samoa, American colonies, in Korea and in Ireland, and I said, “Wow!”

And the more it went on, then I began to see things that people—in other historical things I was reading for different purposes—that people had not brought into this context. They had not identified them as this kind of thing. And it really was mind-blowing and very liberating in many ways.

JV: It began to fit into a pattern.

Sharp: Yes.

JV: Really, nonviolence involves a new way of looking at politics…

Sharp: Yes.

JV: …doesn’t it?

Sharp: Yes.

JV: How new is it? Is it almost like a Marx? You know, you can totally reinterpret history using this form of thinking.

Sharp: Yes, that’s right.

JV: Is it that potentially revolutionary?

Sharp: I think it’s a paradigm change. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the literature about paradigm changes, but I think that’s what it is.

You see, we're no longer looking at powerful governments and dictators as omnipotent. We're no longer accepting that violence ultimately conquers all, that it's the main source of power. Share on X

And we’re looking at different things in history, from the successful tyrants and the wars and the violent revolutions—we’re looking at other things that have happened.

So I think we’re not distorting. It’s not a doctrinal interpretation. It’s a kind of re-discovery of our heritage, of resources upon which we can draw. And by noting the vulnerabilities of powerful governments, their dependencies, which are things that various political theorists have pointed out for a long time—Montesquieu, Machiavelli—Hobbes of all people! I mean, that’s what terrified him. My God! If people don’t obey, everything will fall apart! I mean, that’s why he was so insistent that everybody must be obedient.

That all these things are not new, you see, but we’re seeing them now more sharply. And we’re seeing them as interconnected. The various movements of history that formerly had been perceived as isolated events—whether in Russia or China or South Africa or Ireland or wherever—are now seen as all similar, because they’re all doing something like each other, you see. And therefore, we can learn from all of these. And so, it isn’t just a history of the 1905 Revolution, or the Irish peasant movements of the 19th Century, you see. There’s a history of human beings using these kinds of struggles, which has a myriad of forms. And that means that one looks at the present differently, and therefore the future, and that has all kinds of dramatic possibilities.

JV: What assumptions do you make about human nature in this form of conflict?

Sharp: I make very few, except that humans are malleable and flexible in how they develop and what they do—that they can be nice and cooperative; they can be absolutely ghastly and brutal and sadistic and all kinds of other things. That this does not require an optimistic view of human nature at all. In fact, I can build on—as I made fairly explicit—the human capacity to be stubborn and obnoxious and difficult and defiant…

JV: And incompetent.

Sharp: And incompetent! But how to be incompetent efficiently, you see, and you can mess up the whole damn thing. And considering how people’s incompetence’s and bungling often mess up organizations and governments already—they tell me in Washington that you don’t even have to teach civil servants how to do this. They know all about it, you see—no training program needed.

But if you did have a training program and learned to do it at particular times for particular objectives, then oh wow! I think those people who say you have to have achieved a higher level of personal development, or a higher level of spiritual development, however desirable those developments may be, they’re wrong. You don’t have to do that first. That’s fine if it comes along, but you don’t have to do it first.

JV: What’s the ideological bias of this form of struggle? Or is there one?

Sharp: Not in the narrow sense of ideology, there’s not one. It has a pro-freedom bias. It has a pro-popular control bias. And obviously, it has a pro-nonviolence bias, but in terms of the traditional political ideologies, it has none. And people who try to tie it up with any one particular approach, I think, are doing a great disservice. There are some people trying say you have to be Marxist, or you have to be pacifist, or you have to be anarchist, or something else, and I think that’s just nonsense.

JV: I’d like to focus now specifically on civilian-based defense. In your 1980 book [Social Power and Political Freedom] you wrote about civilian-based defense as a functional substitute for war. One of the functions of war is attack and domination. How does civilian-based defense substitute for that?

Sharp: It does not. And I would argue that the society could decide that it didn’t need that function, that in fact even when the government policy is to attack, it’s normally presented to the population and justified as defense. Even the Nazi invasion of Poland was presented that way. They took people out of their prisons, put them in Polish uniforms, took them out across the German border and shot them, and then held them up as Poles who had attacked Germany as justification.

So it doesn’t do that, but that I think has great advantages for the society. There would be international things you could do. Even much of American policy towards the Soviet Union and Cuba and so forth involves nonviolent sanctions.

JV: It seems to me that the inability of civilian-based defense to project force abroad would make it more difficult for the military to accept it.

Sharp: For some of them, yes—depending on how committed they are to defense, as distinct from this so-called projection of force, et cetera.

JV: Something that may bother some people about civilian-based defense is the need for a lot of government control, or even regimentation, of the population. In other words, if the United States, or any country, were to adopt this form of defense, there would be a need for the government to intrude on all aspects of their lives, in some way. Is that true or is that not true?

Sharp: I think it’s not true, but I’m curious as to what leads you to that conclusion.

JV: I think part of what I’m talking about is the need for central coordination, even in the training. People need to do certain things. If there’s going to be drills, they need to be involved in that in a certain way. That’s what I’m talking about with the regimentation.

Sharp: I see. Yes, that’s true. You would need a large-scale participation in the preparations and training, particularly if you had drills or maneuvers—things like that. I think the degree of regimentation, in the narrow sense of that term, is far smaller with this than you have with military means.

JV: Except this involves the whole population, not just a segment.

Sharp: That’s true, but part of the process of the training and preparation is not only to inform them of the basic things they need to do and not do, but that in crises, when their leadership is removed, they can continue more autonomously—much more self-reliantly. And that means that part of the training has to be for self-reliance, which means making your own decisions, all of which is the opposite of regimentation and control from the top down.

JV: Still, people would need to study; they would need to be familiar with the technique and the theory.

Sharp: That’s true. But in all wars there’s a high degree of control, if even there’s only a few who understand the theory, other people are told what to do. And I think that kind of control is far less here. I wouldn’t call that kind of thing regimentation.

You could, say—let’s take an optimistic view of our electoral system—and say in order to make the electoral system work, most of the population has to have an idea what voting’s all about and what Congress is all about, and they have to know they must get to the polls, and how to evaluate their candidates, hopefully, and on down the line. But I wouldn’t call that regimentation.

JV: Do you think it’s necessary for the government to be involved in the implementation of civilian-based defense? Because it seems like that goes against the need for de-centralization, which is necessary with this technique. But you advocate coordinating it from a central federal government. And also, the government may feel threatened by empowering the people like this. You mentioned that before.

Sharp: Yeah. I think that the latter would depend on the nature of the government. I don’t think that the government of El Salvador or Guatemala would be putting out handbooks on how the people can use this kind of resistance against the rebels, because they’re too insecure themselves. But I could see the government of Sweden doing it, or the government of the United States or England doing it.

JV: But what about the idea of decentralization? Is it possible that it could somehow be developed by non-governmental institutions?

Sharp: Well, that’s an extreme alternative. But let’s take the question of, if you start off with a degree of central planning, I think that has some great advantages. It facilitates the transition to this policy and the legitimate downplaying of the military. Whereas if the military, say, is in place, and this develops side by side in the society, you may have the two appearing to be in conflict, which could have some really rough times for the society as a result of that.

So my preferred scenario is to do this with full democratic government decision-making, involvement and participation. And even the preparation of the generalized plans of resistance—they need a certain degree of coordination and central thinking, so that people are more or less on a similar wavelength. However, when one then begins to implement that in the further advanced stages of preparations, much less the struggle itself, then you have to move towards greater decentralization.

But suppose for some reason, to take your question more seriously, that that kind of thing either was not possible, or you chose not to do it for certain reasons. Maybe you’re a Libertarian and don’t want to even put knowledge of nonviolent resistance in the hands of the government.

It would be thinkable to have this organized outside of governmental control by, first of all, the generalized dissemination of the understanding of the idea among the whole population—popular discussions about it in the various independent institutions of the society. By these institutions and organizations—religious, church, et cetera—maybe setting up some kind of coordinating council on their own initiative for defense components, as part of their normal activities. And having the normal institutions of the society—say, a trade union or a local church parish or whatever—planning for these kinds of contingencies as part of their normal activities, just like they might have something in there for dealing with an earthquake or whatever.

That’s quite thinkable. But it doesn’t deal with the question of how you really dismantle the military without having the military turn on the society, which is rejecting it, you see. And therefore, that’s one of several reasons why we’d prefer that the military and the nonviolent go along side by side, and even some of the military people who could be quite good strategists and thinkers in this field become involved in the preparations for this kind of struggle. So you don’t have that danger of a pro-military coup.

JV: Do you think that violent war can be eliminated in our lifetimes?

Sharp: Well, maybe not in mine. But certainly there could be, in the scope of ten, twenty, and thirty years, which is fairly rapidly, there could be several cases of complete transarmament. And I think some of the smaller West European countries are going to take the lead in that.

Or conceivably, if Poland should win, it would be in a very tricky security position. And if this idea were developed in a sufficiently sophisticated form by that time, it might be a policy that might be adopted as being not provocative militarily, either to NATO or to the—I don’t know what you’d call the Warsaw Pact after that—to the Soviets. I think those kinds of changes can happen. There may be surprises too, as to where this might pop up.

JV: Under what circumstances do you think, conceivably, the United States might transarm? Perhaps a nuclear catastrophe would be one situation…

Sharp: Oh, I don’t think that would do it.

JV: Really?

Sharp: No, I think that’s a scenario various peace groups sometimes come up with. I don’t think it would do it. I think that would result in the opposite, perhaps. I may be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I think that there would be some preconditions, and I don’t know what they all are. I think it’s a very long way down the line. But one is that America’s democratic allies would have already resumed self-reliance in defense, so we would not be needed to help them. Then, a more realistic look at what are the dangers to American security once their securities are taken care of as best they can be.

The dangers of foreign invasion are infinitely small. It would almost be a comedy to watch anybody from Asia or Europe invade the United States, for a whole series of reasons. So our defense problems become very simple, except for nuclear weapons and except for internal takeovers.

And we might then have to re-examine nuclear weapons. Is this, like they tell us, that they bring us safety, true? Well then why is it that the countries without nuclear weapons mostly do not expect nuclear attack and are mostly not targeted? And all the countries with nuclear weapons are targeted by each other. I thought these things were supposed to bring us safety, you see? And you may recognize that that is a myth, that it’s not true. So you might want to reduce those or get rid of them simply on the grounds of national security—that they make you a target for nuclear attack, which otherwise you would not be.

And it’s obviously much more complicated and one ought to pursue all kinds of negotiated arms controls and SALT treaties and START treaties or whatever. But if one could deal with the nuclear thing and the foreign allies could defend themselves, we have just the question of internal takeover as a serious defense problem. And that, this policy could deal with.

JV: I’d like to talk about you a little bit.

Sharp: I don’t do that much.

JV: Were you opposed to war before you encountered civilian-based defense?

Sharp: Yes. I had encountered the idea of nonviolent resistance, though. There was a time I called myself a pacifist, which I don’t do now for a variety of reasons.

JV: Why is that?

Sharp: A pacifist, historically, is basically a position of doctrinal rejection of the military on moral or political grounds or whatever—primarily a personal position. It’s simply, “No, I will not do that.” It doesn’t contribute to what could be done instead. And so I identify more as someone who’s concentrating on trying to refine and develop the potential of what you can do instead, and that isn’t pacifism as a doctrine at all. And especially since this—what you can do instead—can be done by people who are not pacifists, but by people who would normally, perhaps, use violence.

So at one point I was somewhat torn between certain pacifist ideas and the need that the country should be defended. And I think I only, as best I remember, became, as I was at one point, a conscientious objector after I had in my head: “Well, yes. One could defend the country in other ways.” Those were very simplistic and crude kinds of ideas, which were around at that time, but they were there and that was really important to me.

JV: You spent time in jail as a war resistor.

Sharp: Yes, I did. But I don’t think it did a damned thing to get rid of the war system.

JV: Right. Well, it was more of a personal act perhaps.

Sharp: That’s right.

JV: So you really are opposed to war and violence on philosophical grounds, as well as practical…

Sharp: Yes, personally. But we don’t have to convince everybody of those particular grounds before we can replace the war system.

JV: If it turned out that a form of violence—say guerilla warfare—was more effective, or was the most effective means of defending the country, would you advocate that?

Sharp: That’s sort of asking me if reality were different…

JV: Not fair.

Sharp: …would you agree with it? Because I know enough about guerilla warfare to know that there’s no way I could come to that conclusion. Guerilla wars sometimes are defeated and sometimes take a very long time. They have tremendous social and human costs, and they often result in dictatorships afterwards if they’re successful. So I can’t perceive that as being true.

JV: Would you say violence is justified under any circumstances?

Sharp: I really don’t deal with the question of justification. If someone believes he should join the army I don’t say, “Well, you’re not my friend anymore.” I say, “Well, good luck.” Because the question of justification is not one that interests me. Maybe it should.

JV: But do you think that an act of violence can be, in the long run, for the best? For instance, if someone had assassinated Hitler early on, maybe it would have avoided a war.

Sharp: Yeah, in the Hitler case that’s very difficult to know what might have happened. There were a number of attempted assassinations of course, after at least one of which he seems to have come out of it stronger politically, after he survived even with injuries.   I have a suspicion that he might simply have been replaced by another Nazi leader and all might have proceeded much the same. But I have no proof of that. That’s sort of guessing. One does have an idea of what has happened in other cases of assassination though, of tyrants, and the results are not always happy ones.

JV: Is nonviolence kind of a crusade for you, in a way?

Sharp: Oh, I don’t think of it that way at all.

JV: You don’t like to think of it that way?

Sharp: No. No, not at all.

JV: How do you think of it? As just a job or…

Sharp: Well, not really [laughter]. I was trying to find answers to some of these problems, so I did not start out campaigning and speaking. I started out by going to the libraries and sitting at my typewriter—for years on end! [laughs] Rather literally, many years on end.

JV: Yes, I believe it.

Sharp: And began to try to find some of the pieces of the answers, and in some cases only some of the questions. I began to fit things together, and then try to write that up and get it printed. And other people were doing similar things. I would not want to give the impression that I’m the only one doing this kind of stuff. And then attention comes. Like I almost never solicit a speaking invitation, but they come. I turn down one or two for every one I accept now, for a variety of grounds, but I just can’t do them all. So rather than a crusade, where you’re going out fighting or campaigning or trying to sell something—no, no.

JV: But you do feel like you’ve discovered something. You may have parts, bits of an answer of something very important.

Sharp: Yes. Oh, yes. And other people have contributed to that discovery, if it is a discovery. But I think of it more like the better mousetrap idea—the better mousetrap theory for the abolition of war. If you can provide a better system of defense, you don’t have to sell it.

JV: What surprised you most in all your research? Any particular things stand out?

Sharp: I can’t think of a particular thing, but I think in general, the extent to which this type of struggle has been used in very extreme political circumstances—against the Nazis or in communist countries. I think these kinds of things are really very remarkable and very surprising. The fact that the Poles could do what they’ve done, even with all the weaknesses and all the failures, is amazing. I think the capacity to improvise and persist where the odds are terribly against them—that’s amazing.

JV: In the Polish situation I see these people that want to be nonviolent, or have no choice, but they obviously want to struggle and resist. Yet they don’t seem to have the tools or the knowledge of how to do it. And it seems like to a large extent that knowledge exists in the world. But someone needs to help them; they need to educate themselves or something. It’s very frustrating.

Sharp: Yeah, and it’s very hard in an immediate situation where you’re pressed with political things happening all around you—you can’t do that, you see. That’s where I think there’s a role for outside contributions and help. I think we either have, or could put together relatively quickly, resource materials. There are some things available now that could be translated and other things could be prepared, which then could be made available. There are already, reportedly, several underground publishing companies that publish newspapers in Poland, so the things could be printed there.

JV: Do they have access to any information like this at all that you know of?

Sharp: I don’t know. I have very few contacts and I really don’t know what’s going on. So I don’t know how much is there, but obviously something has made this, because we forget how unexpected this is in a way. That at a certain point they said, “Oh, if such and such happens, the Poles will fight,” meaning with guns and so forth and so on, remembering their charging out in the cavalry against the German tanks. Well, in many ways this is very comparable, but the prediction was that, “Of course they’ll be violent. The Poles will always be violent.” But now they’re not. So nobody says, “My God! The Poles aren’t being violent.” You see, they say, “Oh well, of course,” you know. “Of course they’ll be nonviolent. That’s all they can do.” Even you said that.

Well, it’s not all they can do, you see. They could submit; they could shoot to kill; they could throw rocks more than they do. They could carry on a sort of urban guerilla warfare and scattered bombings of buildings. They could do a whole series of things. But they’re not, with rare exceptions.

JV: What’s the most dramatic statement you could make to dramatize the fact that civilian-based defense is not utopian, but potentially a very practical way of defending a country?

Sharp: Well, one thing is that we have more evidence now that we could develop a viable defense policy using nonviolent forms of struggle than existed in 1939 that you could take atoms and make bombs out of them. And since the latter was done, and we have more evidence and more historical experience for the former, certainly that’s an achievable objective.

Interview conducted June 21, 1983

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Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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